Portraits in Ecatepec, a suburb of Mexico City, show crime victims, including those who have lost relatives or witnessed murders.
ECATEPEC, Mexico — When residents of this poor industrial city look to the hills, they now see the faces of crime victims staring back at them. Enormous photographic portraits cover concrete homes as part of a community art project that captures what has become a
“We speak too often in terms of numbers,” said Marco Hernández Murrieta, president of the Murrieta Foundation, which organized the photo project here in a suburb of Mexico City. “We’re putting a face on the statistics.”
Other groups have recently given voices to victims, in videos with famous actors like Diego Luna playing Mexicans who have lost loved ones to drug violence or human rights abuses. Twitter accounts like @Tienennombre also name the dead, often adding ages and other personal details.
These efforts speak to more than just frustration with Mexico’s mounting insecurity. Experts and activists say they are also a shout of outrage against the impunity and lack of transparency that keep Mexicans in the dark, often unable to separate the guilty from the innocent.
And yet, while earlier examples of victim-focused advocacy in Latin America have been aimed mainly at governments, many of Mexico’s so-called victim visualizers say they are less interested in politics and marches than in changing their neighbors’ mind-sets. Their campaigns are mostly attempts to create a public conscience, to keep people from committing or accepting violence by making them feel the suffering that ripples out from crime — largely through efforts that can be shared easily by word of mouth or social media.
“These movements are significantly different from the good old ‘marchas,’ ” said Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The stereotype of the marchas was that they were movements made up of working-class folk, led by charismatic union or political leaders. These new social media movements seem to be structurally different: they are networked, and attract a different demographic — middle-class youth who probably identify more strongly with Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.”
The Ecatepec project was actually inspired by a star of both the street and the Web: the French photographer known as JR, who posts huge portraits on buildings and in public spaces. A few years ago, he displayed poster-size photos of young people from the housing projects around Paris. Later, in the Middle East, he hung portraits of Palestinians and Israelis side by side, on both sides of the walls that divided them. (Last year, JR won an annual $100,000 prize from TED, the tech-savvy conference juggernaut concerned with “ideas worth spreading.”)
The process in Mexico was more communal. The Murrieta Foundation gave photography classes to young people from rough neighborhoods and recruited crime victims as their subjects.
“Victim” was defined broadly. Along with those who had witnessed murders firsthand, lost relatives or been the victims of violent crime, the category included drug addicts, the girlfriends of criminals and an old man who feared that he would never see his imprisoned son before he died. The subjects’ stories were put together in a compilation of testimonials, their names withheld for security reasons.
Cerro Gordo, the neighborhood chosen for its sightlines, at first wanted nothing to do with the project. “Everyone thought it was political,” said Antonio Olvera, 24, a resident who helped hang the posters. “But really, it’s just art.”
Mr. Hernández of the foundation described it more as artistic crime prevention. Standing near a photo of a young woman with full lips and intense eyes here in this dusty neighborhood, he said he hoped the images would cause people thinking of committing a crime to reconsider, while also provoking Mexicans to challenge friends or relatives involved in gangs or drug trafficking.
A similar effort at public awakening can be found with 31K Portraits for Peace, which is posting 2,000 posters of Mexicans eager for peace in the country’s most violent cities, and in the work of El Grito Más Fuerte, an activist collective drawn from Mexico’s film, theater and communication industries.
The five-minute video that El Grito Más Fuerte produced and posted online this year, “In the Shoes of the Other,” received widespread coverage in the Mexican news media and attention on social networks like Facebook because it included celebrities’ telling the story of Javier Sicilia, a poet whose son was murdered last year, and several others with scarring, emotional stories.
The organizers described the video as an attempt to “accompany victims in their pain, their demand for justice and their right to live in peace.” Though the group also said it hoped the video would reverse the government’s attempt “to conceal the state of emergency we live in,” its political demands have stayed general, with calls for less impunity and more security.
“There are no concrete steps to take,” said Gael García Bernal, a star of “Amores Perros” and a new Will Ferrell movie, “Casa de Mi Padre,” at a news conference for El Grito Más Fuerte. Rather, he added, the collective aimed for the symbolic and practical “sharing of conversations.”
But for Mexico, a complicated democracy that has historically chosen stability over reform, are talking and sharing enough?
Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet and longtime environmental activist, said he was encouraged by the passion surrounding those with “credenciales de sangre” (credentials of blood). “But what we need in Mexico is judicial transparency,” he said. “The only hope is to reform the judiciary.”
Without institutional change, Mr. Aridjis added, the popularization of the victim could lead to more trouble, not less, as people felt encouraged to act as vigilantes. “You have to be careful so that victims don’t become inquisitors.”
John M. Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, also questioned how much could be achieved through a protest movement largely devoid of specific demands. “It’s more of a social catharsis,” he said.
In Ecatepec, too, the limits are apparent. Residents say the portraits have stirred up conversation and civic pride. But many people had hoped that the attention the photos have attracted would lead the government to provide much-needed services, like better roads and policing.
Three months after the first image went up, that has not happened. Crime in the neighborhood has also not declined. Residents say there is still a shooting once a week on average.
Mr. Hernández nonetheless maintains that tiny acts of civic re-engineering are the only way to go. “We have to be like ants,” he said, “working hard on small things that are very focused.”
Like hope itself, however, the photos have proved hard to hold onto. Of the 35 that were originally hung up, only about 10 have survived. The rest have been destroyed by storms or stolen by neighbors who used the vinyl they are printed on as roofs for their homes. Basic needs like shelter, it seems, still trump conversation.
(Source: New York Times)